WHAT YOU NEED To Know About Your Skin’s Microbiome
It’s easy to feel frustrated with our skin. For most of us, it can feel like a nuisance or a burden. It feels like the temperamental wrapper our bodies come in — one that must be poked and prodded into submission, and sanded down to an artificial smoothness. Don’t let ads and airbrushed editorial fool you. We’ve all got pores, hair follicles, fine lines, expressions, and congestion. Your skin is not just the wrapper.
As kids, learning that our skin is an organ was mind-blowing. While we know those words now, it can be easy to forget that it’s actively working on all levels, all the time. We exfoliate, we pick, we poke, we scratch, we slather — but we aren’t thinking about what is going on at a surface level. It’s not just flesh, sweat, and blood. Our skin actually has a microbiome just like our gut, and it’s working at the surface.
We hear a lot about the gut microbiome, and yes, it is an absolutely vital colony of bacteria that we need to function properly at a baseline level. However, in the trillions of microorganisms in and on our bodies (which are said to outnumber human cells 10x over, meaning there are at least 10 microbes for every human cell), there is a population of its own on the surface of the skin, and it’s doing important work.
In fact, a single square centimeter of skin can contain one billion microorganisms. That’s not just on the surface, but also in the follicles and sweat glands. That might make you feel a little creeped out, like we are just crawling in microbes — and the truth is, we are. However, they aren’t foreign invaders, but truly a part of us. We were designed this way. Most of them are harmless, some are symbiotic (they help us and we help them), and others are commensal (meaning neutral — they do not harm nor help us). And of course, there are pathogens out in the world that can attach themselves to us until our body defends against them.
Because the primary role of the skin is to be a physical barrier that protects our bodies from foreign invaders and toxins, the “good” bacteria we house on our skin helps us with that task. They battle the pathogenic and harmful organisms, and, according to science, “these microorganisms may also have a role in educating the billions of T cells that are found in the skin, priming them to respond to similarly marked pathogenic cousins.”
In this way, it’s helpful to understand our skin not only as the outer layer that we are always trying to manipulate and manage, but as a built-in ecosystem working to protect us. This microbiome layer fights against not only harmful pathogens that can cause disease, but also that can cause skin rashes, breakouts, inflammation, and more, so we must treat it properly.
While we at Amé love to keep our skin fresh, speed wound and scar healing, and boost collagen and cell turnover, we also need to remember to love and embrace the microbiome. Mechanical exfoliants —unless made with super fine grains — can damage the skin’s surface by being too abrasive and creating small legions and scratches. With this in mind, we have become obsessed with chemical exfoliation in the last few years, however that can be overdone just as well. We definitely need to heed packaging instructions, and not exfoliate too often.
On the other hand, while AHAs and BHAs are absolute wonder ingredients in the world of chemical exfoliation, we can also overdo it. Over-exfoliating can cause damage to our microbiome, revealing vulnerable, immature skin without its microbial barrier to protect and fight for it. We must stick to once a week or less for subtle concentrations — and once a month for more intense concentrations, like a peel.
Cleanse, tone, hydrate, nourish, and moisturize the skin — but don’t strip it of its natural population every time a blackhead appears. This could result in lesions, redness, infection, inflammation, rashes, breakouts, and premature aging. We have to embrace our nature, and nurture its vital role.